The recent death of Ernie Westfield conjured up past images of this tall, lean, serious Black baseball pitcher staring down at me, seeming to dare me to “dig in.”
It was the late ’60s, when national passions were aflame. But deep in East Central Illinois, sweltering summer baseball was being played by adults for whom the bus to the big time had long pulled away.
I played for Robert Hastings’ Tuscola Merchants, one of several area teams that played in the Eastern Illinois League. Some say
it was “semi-pro” ball, but if it was, someone forgot to pay me.
We always looked forward to Wardell Jackson’s Champaign Eagles coming to town for a Sunday afternoon game. Jackson was legendary, having bought the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the great teams of the old Negro Leagues.
Legendary players of the Birmingham Barons included Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Westfield. When Jackson bought the team, he left the Negro Leagues and moved the Barons to Champaign to “barnstorm.” Jackson brought along Westfield (nicknamed the “skinny flamethrower from Tennessee” during his career at the twilight of the Negro Leagues). Westfield had been the starting pitcher for the East in the annual Negro League all-star game.
Westfield later recalled that Jackson enticed him to move to Champaign to play ball: “I’ll put you up in an apartment, pay all your bills and everything, but I want you to start for me pitching up here the next year.”
Westfield alluded to Jackson’s reputation as head of gambling in north Champaign: “One thing you need to understand is that [Wardell] was a big numbers man in Illinois. ... He drove a great big Cadillac that always had a trunk full of cash. If you needed something, he would open the car and pay you cash on the spot. So I felt the best thing for me was staying close to Jackson, because he always took real good care of me.”
I remember that big Cadillac, an enormous black sedan, pulling up within five minutes of the game’s start and Westfield piling out, wearing that batting helmet he always wore.
He and I were the dueling pitchers that day and for a few more hot and humid afternoons.
I don’t remember if I ever out dueled him — the games always seemed close. But I remember wanting to dig in when I came to the plate. Then he gave me that look — you know, the “Bob Gibson scowl” that declared that if you dug in on him, he’d throw a high, hard heater 2 inches below your jaw.
Westfield might have been quite a warm, fuzzy and friendly sort, but I never had the pleasure of meeting that Ernie. I only met the scowling, deadly serious, “don’t dig in on me,” extremely competitive Ernie.
And so we battled on the ball diamond, the all-Black Eagles and the all-White Merchants, in a time of great racial strife and anti-war tension. But all I remember is good, hard baseball and mutual respect.
The closest thing I witnessed to a “racial incident” was when a Tuscola fan famous for his lack of probity yelled out the dreaded “N-word” to Eagle first baseman Gene Jordan.
I was on the bag next to Jordan when the epithet was hurled — Westfield must have walked or hit me. Suddenly, everything went quiet. Jordan, never changing expression, simply turned, looked into the crowd at the miscreant, and replied in a loud, clear voice: “And you, sir, are an obese idiot.”
That broke the tension,
as chuckling broke out in the Tuscola stands, obviously agreeing with his assessment.
Jackson was shot a
few years later in 1969, spent 12 months in hospitals and returned home partially paralyzed in a wheelchair. In 1970, the Eagles dissolved for lack of funds. Tuscola’s team folded about the same time.
Time passed. I would occasionally read about Westfield: working at the unemployment office, radio DJ, public speaking, poetry reading.
There was a 2006 newspaper interview where he said he still pitched every day and was scheduled to pitch an inning for the Joliet Jackhammers. He claimed he still threw it over 80 mph, even at 67 years old.
I bet Jackson’s trunk
full of money that no one on the Jackhammers “dug in” on him.